Experts offer 12 steps to emotional wellness.
By Sylvia Davis
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
You know you need to take care of your physical health, but have you been doing enough to maintain a healthy emotional balance? Here are 12 tips from the experts for reducing stress, managing negative emotions, and improving your emotional wellness.
1. Collect Friends
You need people, lots of them.
"If you look at all the theories of psychotherapy, people who have a lot of social support are happier," says Rebecca Curtis, PhD, a professor of psychology at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., and director of research at the W.A. White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Psychoanalysis in New York City.
The opposite is true, also. "We all need to be checking out our thoughts with other people, and people get weirder and weirder the more they stay alone," Curtis says.
If the friends-of-friends-of-friends chain reaction that had kept your life stocked with new relationships has fizzled out -- for example, if you have moved to a new place where you don't know anyone -- try taking a more active role. But instead of trying to chat up folks at the local watering hole, sign up for a class that involves a lot of social interaction.
"It's easier to meet people if there's some kind of a structured discussion about a certain subject," says Muriel James, PhD, psychologist and author of It's Never Too Late to Be Happy.
2. Enjoy Solitude
This step may seem to contradict the first one, but actually it complements it. Some isolation can be quite healthy.
"The isolation that comes when people have given up on other people is the problem," Curtis says.
Avoid this extreme, but don't be such a social butterfly that you lose yourself completely. Take time to "sit with your feelings," Curtis says, without distractions.
Some call this meditation, but it doesn't have to be done in the lotus position. For example, if you spend an hour alone in the car every day, keep the radio off, and listen to your thoughts instead.
Haven't got an hour alone? Try a three-minute meditation: close your door, turn off the phone, then close your eyes. Take deep breaths, focusing on your breath as it goes in and out. If thoughts come to you, just bring yourself back to your breathing. Then think about a beautiful image, a flower, a child's face; look at every detail. Then, gradually, breathe faster and open your eyes.
3. Get Fit
We're not saying, "Look fabulous in time for swimsuit season." Just get your body moving. Study after study has shown that exercise lifts mood and generally enhances quality of life.
Break any vicious cycles you see happening, which get in the way of adding positive things like exercise to your daily routine. Booze, cigarettes, overeating, junk food, or all these together are an impediment to physical activity, and overindulging leads to more of the same.
It's important for emotional health to maintain your physical health in all the ways you can. So get enough sleep; eat regular, balanced meals; and take time for relaxation as well.
4. Seek Pleasure
This may also seem like a contradiction, but moderation in all things is the message here. Everyone knows that "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." Overly rigorous devotion to work drives you batty.
Still, it's easy to become consumed by your responsibilities and to neglect your own enjoyment of life.
In his book, Your Own Worst Enemy: Breaking the Habit of Adult Underachievement, psychologist Kenneth Christian, PhD, directs readers to add something positive and pleasurable to their life, do it every day, and make it permanent.
5. Find a Passion
If you don't know what your purpose in life is, start smaller. "Make a list of things you want to do before you die," Christian says. Don't be shy about writing down wild schemes. If your first list is uninspiring, make another one. Keep making lists and look for any recurring themes.
Identifying an interest and pursuing it can develop into a rich and exciting life that you'd never imagined you'd have. "Not all that helps us reach goals is linear," Christian says. Ask yourself, "What cooks for me?" he says.
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6. Plan for Problems
Instead of expecting everything in your life to go smoothly -- some things will, and some definitely won't -- or worrying about what will happen to you if things go wrong, plan for potential problems.
Some problems blindside us, but others are more predictable. Muriel James gives an example: If you think you may have to get up in the middle of the night, will you fret about possibly tripping over things in the dark, or will you turn on a night light?
7. Seek Constructive Criticism
"Often people are doing things to mess themselves up, but they really don't have a clue of what is going wrong," Rebecca Curtis says. For example, "They really may not be aware of how they're acting with people."
You probably are very charming -- but maybe you are rubbing people the wrong way. Too much self-consciousness can paralyze you socially, but don't be oblivious to how others perceive you.
The same goes for your work. Don't be afraid to ask, "Am I doing a good job?"
8. Take Healthy Risks
People need to approach what they feel anxious about," Curtis says. This doesn't mean you should force yourself into terrifying situations needlessly. But if you never leave your comfort zone, your life will be all the poorer for it.
9. Manage Success Well
"If at First You Do Succeed, Try Thinking Like a Woman," is the title of a chapter in Reclaiming the Fire: How Successful People Overcome Burnout, by Steven Berglas, PhD.
"Women hold on to relationships with competitors. Men litter the battlefield with corpses," says Berglas, a psychologist at the John E. Anderson School of Management at UCLA.
Spreading your success around, rather than jealously guarding it, promotes better emotional health by continuing to build your sense of self-worth. "If success ends your ability to build self-esteem, or if you're not building self-esteem, you're just resting on it, then you start committing crazy acts," Berglas says.
People who get bored with their success, he says, "start looking for ways to dare the devil and beat him." Eventually they lose.
10. Don't Go It Alone
Psychologists would urge just about everyone to get into therapy. None of us make it to adulthood emotionally unscathed, and there are mental health experts waiting to help you.
"It's the 21st century," Curtis says. "Don't be a dinosaur and insist on doing it all by yourself."
11. Write It Down
Identify negative thoughts and don't let them ambush you, says Judith Orloff, MD, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at UCLA. "Don't beat yourself up for being stressed, but bring your fears into the open on paper. Make a list of your seven worst fears."
Then, she says, make a second list of the things you are grateful for.
Irwin says he did much the same with a family member who was getting down and negative. Parents need to teach children to make a list of positives, too.
Writing the negatives bleeds them of power. They become words on paper.
12. Protect Yourself from 'Energy Vampires'
The Drama Queen, the Sob Sister, the Constant Talker, the Blamer - do you know any of these people? Chances are, you do. And any of them can wear you out
You need to learn to set boundaries," Orloff says. "Listen for awhile, then break off the interchange. People are so afraid to do this. They don't want to seem impolite. You need to be firm, though kind."
The same goes for technology, which can be an overwhelming stressor. "People go into despair when their computer breaks (or they forget their cell phone for a day).
"Don't let your computer hypnotize you. Get outside, at least look outside!"
SOURCES: WebMD Feature: "10 Steps to Emotional Health in 2005." WebMD Feature: "Spring Break Makeover for the Mind."
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